The Mill and the Cross | Movie Reviews + Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
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The Mill and the Cross 

Take a cinematic journey inside a well-known 16th-century painting

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This is an art film, in every sense of the word: It's about a well-known painting; beautifully framed and shot; and there's no dialogue and only a whisper of a borrowed plot. Thus, it is likely to appeal to only a select few, but those viewers so inclined might find Lech Majewski's film an absorbing and perhaps illuminating experience.

Using Pieter Bruegel the Elder's 1564 painting "The Way to Calvary" as a springboard, Majewski creates a work that is part art lesson; part re-telling of the Crucifixion; part "documentary" of everyday life in 16th-century Flanders; part historical drama about Spain's control of Antwerp; and, throughout, a meditation on art as a mirror of both the real and the allegorical.

Our primary guide is Bruegel himself (portrayed by Rutger Hauer), who walks the painting's landscape — a large meadow full of activity below a mill on a rocky hill. He observes people — farmers, children, Spanish soldiers, prisoners, peddlers — and explains the genesis of his painting to his patron, Nicolaes Jonghelinck (Michael York). When at home, Jonghelinck provides some thoughts on the general lack of religious tolerance. The third voice in the film is that of a condemned prisoner's mother (Charlotte Rampling), who acts as "Mary" in the Passion narrative.

The effect of the film is to go "inside" the painting, as if it had come to life, and we can observe all the players and actions that lead to the one moment frozen in paint. The costumes and sets are impressive, and there are some moments of startling beauty. Ultimately, I'm not sure that Majewski's labor of love tells us anything new about life or art. Perhaps little can, and the pleasure is in how an artist — like Majewski and Bruegel before him — assembles familiar pieces into new shapes. Starts Fri., Jan. 13. Regent Square

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